Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991)

*From Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. London: Cambridge University Press, 29-43.

In this chapter, Lave & Wenger describe how they came to explore learning as “legitimate peripheral participation.” The opening paragraph provides a great summary of LPP:

“Learning viewed as situated activity has as its central defining characteristic a process that we call legitimate peripheral participation…Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and…the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. ‘Legitimate peripheral participation’ provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artifacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. It concerns the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice. This social process includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills” (p.29).

Development of this learning theory stemmed from the initial intent to “rescue the idea of apprenticeship… We and our colleagues had begun to talk about learners as apprentices, about teachers and computers as masters, and about cognitive apprenticeship, apprenticeship learning, and even life as apprenticeship” (p.29). [**this feels related to Papert’s notion that education should model professional or expert practices (e.g., trial and error, debugging, etc.), however, I wonder what “teachers and computers as masters” means to Lave & Wenger…]

“Children are, after all, quintessentially legitimate peripheral participants in adult social worlds” (p.32).

Lave & Wenger’s concept of situated activity/learning “implied emphasis on comprehensive understanding involving the whole person rather than “receiving” a body of factual knowledge about the world; on activity in and with the world; and on the view that agent, activity, and the world mutually constitute each other” (p.33).

“[General knowledge] too can be gained only in specific circumstances. And it too must be brought into play in specific circumstances. The generality of any form of knowledge always lies in the power to renegotiate the meaning of the past and future in constructing the meaning of present circumstances” (p.34).

Lave & Wenger raise an important distinction between a theory of learning “in which practice (in a narrow, replicative sense) is subsumed within processes of learning and one in which learning is taken to be an integral aspect of practice (in a historical, generative sense). In our view, learning is not merely situated in practice — as if it were some independently reifiable process that just happened to be located somewhere; learning is an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world… Legitimate peripheral participation is proposed as a descriptor or engagement in social practice that entails learning as an integral constituent” (p.35).

“The concept of LPP must be taken as a whole. “Its constituents contribute inseparable aspects whose combinations create a landscape — shapes, degrees, textures — of community membership.”

“The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content… Peripherality suggests that there are multiple, varied, more- or less-engaged and -inclusive ways of being located in the fields of participation defined by a community. Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world. Changing locations and perspectives are part of actors’ learning trajectories, developing identities, and forms of membership” (p.36).

Legitimate peripherality is a “complex notion implicated in social structures involving relations of power. The ambiguous potentialities of legitimate peripherality reflect the concept’s pivotal role in providing access to a nexus of relations otherwise not perceived as connected” (p.36).

Important for educational researchers and practitioners to understand: “Legitimate peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique. It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning… Learning through legitimate peripheral participation takes place no matter which educational form provides a context for learning, or whether there is any intentional educational form at all” (p.40).

“…Rethinking schooling from the perspective afforded by legitimate peripheral participation will turn out to be a fruitful exercise. Such an analysis would raise questions about the place of schooling in the community at large in terms of possibilities for developing identities of mastery. These include questions of the relation of school practices to those of the communities in which the knowledge that schools are meant to “impart” is located, as well as issues concerning relations between the world of schooling and the world of adults more generally…[It] would also raise questions about the social organization of schools themselves into communities of practice, both official and interstitial, with varied forms of membership” (p.41).

“…Unequal relations of power must be included more systematically in our analysis. Hegemony over resources for learning and alienation from full participation are inherent in the shaping of the legitimacy and peripherality of participation in its historical realizations” (p.42). [“Alienation from full participation” makes me think of Henry Jenkins’ white paper & his discussion of “the participatory gap.”]


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